- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 2, 2006

The pencil once was cutting-edge technology. These days, it’s other handheld devices, like iPods or Palm Pilots. And while no one denies the printed word still has tremendous value — as historian and author Barbara Tuchman put it, “Books are humanity in print” — more students probably research their work on the Internet than in a library. The face of education is changing.

You are likelier to see a child with his thumbs tapping away at the tiny keypad of his cell phone, texting his friends, than to see him curled up with a copy of Dickens’ “Oliver Twist.” Another common sight: A young person bouncing along the sidewalks, more engrossed in the auditory world of her mp3 player than the physical world around her. Is this a colossal waste of time and opportunity by curmudgeon standards? Yes. Are these also the newest tools in education technology? Most definitely.

If teaching is an exchange of ideas, then the ways people convey their thoughts in this day and age — text messages, podcasts, the Internet, instant messaging — must find a place in the modern classroom. Children are mastering these modes of communication early in life, and if teachers hope to truly engage their students in learning, teachers must not only speak their language but find ways to effectively communicate with them.

Notes once pinned to collars can now be texted to a parent’s phone — or perhaps even the student’s mobile. Homework assignment sheets once crowded book bags; now assignments can be posted on the Internet. Questions that once had to be saved for the next class can be answered by the teacher through instant messaging. The world of information available to students in the age of Google is staggering.

And not only is technology changing the delivery of information, it is making advances in measuring student progress. If students are all operating on one system in the classroom, one teacher can assess multiple students at a time and see if these students are able to understand the concepts being presented.

Split-second assessment can translate into immediate feedback, something to which children who have cut their teeth on “instant everything” respond. Fast is a commodity in our society and technology can keep education in the moment.

For instance, in some school districts, students do their homework on the Internet and are able to connect with their teachers for guidance and correction. The use of interactive whiteboards is just making its way into American schools. This technology, which allows network participants to simultaneously view one or more users drawing on an on-screen blackboard or running an application, has revolutionized classrooms.

About 750,000 boards are installed worldwide, with more than 3 million boards forecast by 2010, according to Decision Tree Consulting. With an interactive whiteboard, students can show what they are thinking from the comfort on their own desks.

For all the benefits of technology, there are some drawbacks, and its greatest strength — being attuned to our need for instant gratification — is also its greatest weakness. The latest software and hardware can be outdated in six months, and school systems simply don’t move that quickly. A school system will get state or federal funding to purchase access to the Internet, computers and software, and then the school system is unable to keep up with how rapidly the advances are made.

Another glitch in heavy reliance on modern technology in schools: every child learns differently. There are students who prefer pencil and paper to Palm Pilots — students who can’t learn unless they physically write something down. In any given third grade classroom across the country, some kids might grab a library book to learn something while other kids might benefit more from a talk with their peers. Technology may connect us more on one level and reduce personal interaction on another.

The key to our success with technology in the classroom, as with life, is to find a balance. Technology has its value, and textbooks have theirs. Ultimately, the goal is to provide every student with the best education possible — whether in textbook form or an e-book downloaded to an iPod.


President of William H. Sadlier Inc., a family-owned and -operated publisher of text books since 1832.

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